We wake early, partly because of the cold and the altitude but mainly because at 5.30am, some lunatic started playing Amazing Grace over the village public address system!
This was quickly followed by a sermon, then something remarkably akin to an Islamic Imam’s call to morning prayers and the the sort of chanting one hears from a Cantor in a synagogue. Seemed like whoever was responsible wanted to cover all the possible bases. When I mentioned it to Alfredo, who was clearly unhappy at being woken well before dawn, he grumbled something about protestors ( I think he meant Protestants!)
A quick breakfast and we set off again into the wild blue yonder. If yesterday’s scenery was impressive, today’s was simply breathtaking. After driving for an an hour or so we stop at a sort of corral for llamas and alpacas. They were all hemmed in by drystone walls, ready for what I am not sure? There didn’t seem to be anyone around to look after them but, given they had nowhere to go, it was a good opportunity for some close up photos. We had seen hundreds, if not thousands of Alpacas, llamas and vicuñas the previous day but this was the first time up close.
We explained to Alfredo and one of the other guides how popular alpacas farms had become in the UK and how much an animal would cost (up to £7000 for a prime breeding animal). Within two minutes they were planning how they could get some animals from Bolivia to England!
After a short while we set off again through what I can only describe as a swamp area. Lots of grassy tufts surround by water, some snow and a lot of ice. All very Mordor from LOTR! Indeed, were warned before we set out that we may not be able to follow our set route as the previous week there had been heavy snowfall on some of the passes we would be travelling. As it turned out, although there was still a lot of snow and ice around in places, we were able to get through ok.
We pass by many lagoons surrounded many volcanoes. Lagunas Morejon, Hedriona and Kollpa to name but three. Some inhabited by thousands of flamingoes, most edged with mineral deposits as this is one of the most mineral rich areas in the world.
We stop at one lagoon, the Salar de Chawari surrounded with massive deposits of blindingly white Borax, left behind by evaporation of the lake which, I am reliably informed is essential in the manufacture of everything from gunpowder, to makeup to detergent. The sunlight is so intense here and reflected against the white I have never been so glad of my Raybans!
TIP: On the subject of evaporation, whilst many people suffer from the effects of altitude at these heights, what the guide books largely fail to mention are the effects of the incredibly dry atmosphere. At virtually zero % humidity the air seems to suck the moisture out of your body, leaving very dry eyes, noses, throats etc. which coupled with the aforementioned altitude can make sleeping very difficult. I seem to be getting through at least a litre of water throughout the night with the inevitable side effects! Not a great experience, nipping to the bathrooms at -10-20 degrees centigrade!
The Salar de Uyuni is rightly famous, but we hadn’t really given much thought to the other sights along the way. They are just as impressive!!
As we approached Laguna Verde for the first time at 4530 metres above sea level it quite simply took our breath away, both literally and figuratively! One of the most beautiful sights we had ever seen! The green colour is due to the concentrations of Sulphur, Lead, Magnesium and Arsenic (not great to drink then!).
As the wind gets ups and blows across the surface the water seems to change colour. the constant wind, combined with the very high mineral content means that the lake stays liquid even at tempertures as low as minus 30C. Immediately behind the lake, Volcán Licancabur rises to a spectacular 5960m. The photos we have taken really do not do it justice. Truly one of the most memorable places we have ever visited.
Reluctantly leaving the lake we backtrack to the hot springs we passed along the way for lunch. Alfredo suggest a dip in the springs prior to lunch but we all wimp out as, although the water is warm there is a strong and very cold wind blowing which sort of negates the purpose of a soak in the water (although a few hardy souls did try it).
After lunch we continue our journey around the circuit in the afternoon our first stop is the Geisers Sol De Mañana. These geyser are bubbling various coloured muds and spouting steam all over the place. The sight is impressive but the smell, I could well do without. The inevitable sulphur in the mud and water really does smell like rotten eggs and takes me back immediately to chemistry lessons at school. We spend some time wandering around admiring the geysers, one or two (i.e., me) narrowly miss slipping into the boiling mud.
Our final stop of the day is to visit Laguna Colorada, the red lagoon. This fiery red lake covers some 60 sq. kms. but is only about 80 cms deep. The red coloration is derived from plankton an algae. The edges of the lake are fringed brilliant white with deposits of sodium, magnesium and borax. After walking around part of the lakeshore we head off to our Hostal for the night which overlooks the lake itself.
After dinner, a few of us take a short walk out from the hostal away from the lights to admire the stars. At this altitude there is little or no industrial pollution, humidity is zero and there is next to no light pollution. All these factors combine to make this one of the best places in the world to stargaze. I simply cannot find the words to describe the night sky here. As a our eyes become accustomed, we can actually see that what we at first assumed was wisps of cloud, was actually the Milky Way! A few meteors streaked across the sky and Carolyn is chatting with one of the guides who then points out the various constellation ( some of which seem very familiar even though this is the Southern Hemisphere) and Jupiter, shining very brightly, something, I at least, have never seen before.
After a while, the temperature begins to drop rapidly and when I mention this to a to a Canadian guy I have been standing with he simply says “cold?” don’t ever come to Canada in winter”!